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Why Is It So Hard To Ask for Help?

Americans are proud of our independence, but we need reminders that we're not alone.

More than any other culture, Americans believe in the value of self-reliance. We can trace it back to an oft-cited Benjamin Franklin adage: "God helps those who help themselves." But sometimes — whether it's a computer malfunction, a deep spring cleaning, an apartment move, or finally healing a tender childhood wound — we need to ask for help. Why is it so damn hard?

"The biggest reason many seem to have for staying stuck rather than reaching out is fear," writes Laurie Leinwand, MA, LPC, on Good Therapy. "People fear they will be rejected or told 'no,' fear being seen as 'less than' or weak, or fear being 'found out.'"

If we can deconstruct these fears, though, we can take the power from them, making the asking a little easier. One reason being told "no" feels so painful, this therapist suggests, is because we personalize the rejection. "It's best to accept the 'no' as the answer to our request, not a negation of ourselves," she says. Consider, too, that a "no" from the wrong person gets us closer to a "yes" from the right person.

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The fear of being "found out" relates to a common fear of being exposed as a fraud, commonly referred to as "impostor syndrome." This is the product of perfectionism's rigid thinking — if we don't know everything, we must know nothing. In reality, "In most roles in which we function, whether it be parent, employee, or partner, we are not expected to know it all….. It doesn't serve us to pretend we have every answer," Leinwand says.

In our culture, we strongly associate vulnerability with weakness. Yet doesn't it take bravery to reveal our softest spots? Asking for help takes self-awareness and courage. As Leinwand concludes, "To be vulnerable is to provide the opportunity to connect and pool resources, thereby resulting in further strength."

The Oaks at La Paloma

For many people, the vulnerability required to ask for help taps into old, ingrained ideas from childhood, says licensed social worker Lisa Ferentz in Psychology Today, who suggests looking back to our family for the source of our notions about vulnerability and strength.

"While you were growing up what kind of messages did you get about asking for help? Did your family place more value on 'doing it yourself' or 'letting others in?' When you did attempt to reach out in childhood, how did the people in your life respond?"

It can be helpful to challenge these old ideas; reframing asking for help as courageous can set yourself up to have a positive experience when you do reach out. You might even be closer to a "yes" than you think. A 2008 study from Cornell found that subjects "underestimated by as much as 50 percent the likelihood that others would agree to a direct request for help." In other words, people want to help, but first you have to ask.

1. Make your need clear.

Here's where that brave vulnerability comes in. In a given situation, you may think it's obvious that you need help. Say the baby's crying, lunch's dirty dishes are crowding the counter, and the oven timer's going off. You may be feeling overwhelmed and alone, while your partner's scrolling through Facebook on his phone in the next room.

Let's give him/her the benefit of the doubt and blame a phenomenon called inattentional blindness, as described by The New York Times. Inattentional blindness allows us to take in the information directly in front of us and ignore the rest. In other words, most people aren't purposefully ignoring you; they're just lost in their own heads. Voicing your needs to others is asking them to switch their focus, not burden their day.

2. Make it clear why you've chosen that person.

People like knowing specifically why they've been singled out when you choose to open up to them. It's not that you need anyone; you need them. This makes the person you're asking feel personally invested in the outcome, which makes them want to help, rather than feel obligated. You're not just seeking attention from anybody, you're looking for a connection.

3. Make sure the person you're asking has the capacity to give.

Everybody seems like they're the busiest person in the world, but many welcome the chance to pause their own stress for the chance to help another. Still, maybe don't ask your friend who is planning a wedding, moving apartments, or helming a big project at work if she can help you. They'll do the same for you, and everyone can respect each other's time.

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In a culture that reveres independence, asking for help can feel counter-intuitive. Still, "All of us need help from time to time," writes Tim Herrara at The New York Times, "and the ability to ask is a learnable skill we seldom think about but one that can have a monumental impact on our goals and lives." And like all skills, practice makes perfect.